Musical Prodigy

In 1929, after listening to a violin recital by a thirteen-year artist, a Nobel prize winning physicist rushed backstage and exclaimed, "Now I know that there is a God in heaven." The child prodigy was Yehudi Menuhin and the Nobel laureate was Albert Einstein.

Music, more than any other art or science (with the possible exception of mathematics and chess), has had its unfair share of child prodigies or wunderkinds (German for "wonder child"). Classical composers like Mozart and Chopin, Liszt and Bizet had all performed publicly before hitting their teenage years. In fact, legend has it that six-year old Mozart had proposed marriage to the future Queen Marie Antoinette after performing before the Austrian royal family!

Child prodigy accounts trigger the age-old debate between nature and nurture. In several cases, parents of prodigies are involved in the same field as their offspring and goad them to follow in their footsteps at an early age; for instance, Picasso's father was an artist, Mozart's father was a musician, and Nijinsky's parents were dancers. There is no doubt that family conditioning plays an important role in the prodigy phenomenon, as does the greater environment, which would explain the abundance of young chess champions in Russia, gymnasts in eastern Europe and musicians among Jewish families. A more recent trend has been to discover young talents in Asia, where hard work is still venerated and discipline is more stringent than in the liberal west. It should also be remembered that the prodigies we read or hear about are only those who have been brought to the limelight of publicity by families or schools capitalising on, or even exploiting, the savant's skillset, while there may be an iceberg's worth of latent talents immersed below the surface.

All these thoughts come to mind as I read about Robert Vijay Gupta becoming the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra's youngest violinist at the age of twenty. Almost ten years ago, I had the good fortune of attending young Gupta's solo recital at the Calcutta Town Hall. The city's celebrities had come out in full force to witness the precocious child's talents, and were silenced by the poise and self-confidence with which he regaled the audience. Standing on a platform so he may be visible above the conductor, Gupta's tiny fingers flew across the strings of his Stradivarius even as his no-nonsense face reflected an expression of adult intensity. To this day I remember the night like a Cinderella fantasy, with the crumbling venue made resplendent in its original Doric grandeur, and a ten-year-old prodigy leading the Calcutta Chamber Orchestra with the same Sarasate piece that the Spanish artist himself had played at St James Hall in the presence of Sherlock Holmes.

Sociologists often make a distinction between an extremely gifted child who mimics existing art at an early age, and one who has a highly-focused talent along with a powerful drive to develop it as she matures. Usually only time can reveal which category a wunderkind belongs to. In the case of Gupta, given that he has also picked up a pre-medical degree at seventeen, let us hope that his motivation for music may make him a modern Mozart.

For the first twenty years you are still growing
Bodily that is: as a poet, of course,
You are not born yet. It's the next ten
You cut your teeth on to emerge smirking
For your brash courtship of the muse.
R S Thomas, To a Young Poet

1 comment:

Altamont said...

very nice and interesting post. Loved esp the reference to the incident in the Red-Headed League :)

Your last comment is very valid - is the prodigy simply a good mimic or does he bring his own originality to the art?